Listening While White: Respecting the Image of God in People of Color

Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people.

I feel like I need to begin this with a request to “hear me out” (at the risk of appearing apologetic). I am a white, evangelical Christian. The title recognizes who I am. I realize as I wade out into these waters that they are treacherous today. Many are the rocks on which ships with good intentions have been dashed.

Should I even have to say that people of color bear the image of God? I shouldn’t have to say it, but I feel I need to say it nevertheless. Why?

That impulse, alone, signals to me that something is not quite right.

I just read that slavery is “the original sin of the United States”. It colors our past (pun very much intended). It continues to leave its imprint on the present. I have to admit to finding some truth in that statement.

Obviously, race is the subject of this article. But not just race. I am writing about Christianity, generally, and the church universal and global.

If any group ought to be able to speak with wisdom into the race issues that we continue to face, it should be the Church, right? Yet, we see as much segregation in the church as a whole as we do in society.

Spoiler alert. God has been orchestrating the entire course of human history from the beginning to this end:

“A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….”


This is God’s endgame. Are we onboard with the plan?

This is the unity for which Jesus prayed for his followers. (John 17:20-23) Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people. (Eph. 2:14) God began working though His Holy Spirit toward His endgame soon after Jesus died and rose again, working through Paul and the disciples to break down the wall between Jew and Gentile. (See Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius)

We won’t participate in achieving the unity for which Jesus prayed without recognizing the big picture – the kingdom of God – and the foundation on which we all stand – Jesus. Given the purposeful prayer of Jesus for unity among his followers, disunity that exists in the Church means we have failed in some way to focus on the things that should unify us. We have allowed differences that shouldn’t matter to divide us.

If the endgame includes people “from every nation, tribe, people and language”, then we should not allow those kinds of differences, at least, to divide us. Racial matters should be a non-issue. We should be one in Christ, right?

If you have read this far, take a few minutes (6 minutes and 14 seconds to be exact) to listen to Jackie Hill Perry talk about God in the context of her same sex attraction and submission to the Lordship of Christ:

Do you doubt that she has had an encounter with the risen Jesus? If you listen to her give her whole testimony, it is powerful!

Obviously, people from diverse nations, tribes, people groups and languages have diverse experiences, but we all identify and are unified in our experience of the salvation and Lordship of Christ.

We will spend eternity with a diverse group of people who (in keeping with Revelations) will not lose their distinctive differences. Yet, we will all be united before the throne of the Lamb of God.

Can we afford to let our differences keep us apart today?

My thoughts today are prompted by Esau McCauley, a black, evangelical Christian whose mentor is NT Wright. He is an assistant professor of Early Christianity and New Testament Scripture at Northeastern Seminary on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY. He wrote a book called Reading While Black, published by Intervarsity Press. (The title to this article reflects back the title of his book.)

We don’t lose our distinct identities when we enter the kingdom of God – individually or as groups of people – yet we will be unified before the throne of Christ who is Lord and Savior of us all.

Jesus meets every believer where we are, and he offers salvation to one and all. The salvation he offers is freedom from sin and death and citizenship in God’s kingdom where the Father calls us children.

In Paul’s day, believers struggled to embrace the idea that Gentiles and Jew were equals in Christ. Today we struggle with black and white (and other differences). Satan is always at work to build up walls that divide, while Jesus is in the business of breaking walls down – at least for those who are, indeed, in Christ.

If we want to “get with the program”, we should be following Jesus and doing as he does. If we are going to love our neighbors, we can start by listening to our brothers and sisters who are different than us and recognize the image of God in them.

Followers of Christ are not concentrated in America, and they are dwindling in much of Europe. Believers are thriving and growing in places like China, Iran, South America and Africa, even in the most hostile environments. We all have our difficulties. American believers struggle uniquely with racial tensions that arise out of our collective experience as Americans.

While European believers were collectively waking up to the sinfulness of slavery in the 19th century and acting with consensus to eradicate it wherever European influence held sway, the American Church remained divided. A large segment of the American Church was unable or unwilling to recognize the sin of slavery and racial prejudice, and it languished on for generations – into our lifetime.

Not that we are alone in our biases, but we live with our history pockmarked, as it is, with racial animus. The sins of our past continue to haunt us, just as the sins that were uniquely European continue to haunt modern Europe. Just as the people of Israel paid for their collective sins by exile.

Individuals and people groups who sow sin to the wind reap the whirlwind.

I think about these things as I listen to the Esau McCaulley interview of Jasmine Holmes on the podcast, Disrupters, in which they “dive into stereotypes of race and political ideologies, black womanhood, and the fearless pursuit of God’s unique callings on our lives”.

Holmes is an African-American woman who is an evangelical author, blogger and 8th grade history/Latin teacher.

She also wrote, Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope, by Intervarsity Press.  

As I listen to them, I think about the noticeable division between black evangelicals and white evangelicals over Donald Trump. Sure, some blacks have endorsed and backed him, but most don’t – people like Jackie Hill Perry, Esau McCaulley and Linda Holmes

Does that mean they are any less Christians? That Jesus is not their Lord? That the seal of the Holy Spirit on them is in vain?

There is but one God, the Father and Creator of all people. There is one Jesus, the Son of God who died for all that all might live. There is one Spirit who resides within all people who submit to Him, working to conform us to the image of the God.

Esau McCaulley is a New Testament scholar. He isn’t a political pundit. He would rather refrain from political statements, but people want to know what he thinks as a black theologian. He says it this way:

Let me be clear, I am not saying that everyone who voted for Trump was motivated by racism. That would be silly. I know Christians for whom the pro-life cause was so important that all other issues could be pushed aside in order to secure Supreme Court Justices. I disagree, but I understand. I also understand that some believed that Hillary Clinton was so corrupt that voting for her was unthinkable.

But can we at least admit that the health and well being of people of color did not seem factor into the calculus of the scores of Evangelicals who swept Trump into the White House. 

From Longer Still
(Post Election Reflections of a
Black Man amongst the Evangelicals),
November 9, 2016

For a black man or woman in America, whose ancestors suffered through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynch mobs, redlining, and the many ways in which racial disparity has played out, the election of Donald Trump and the language of his supporters (not all of them of course), gave people like Esau reason to fear. The overwhelming support of white evangelicals gave people of color reason to believe that they were alone, abandoned by a majority of the church.

How effective is our preaching of the Gospel when we are insensitive to the oppression experienced by our brothers and sisters of color? Paul said he became all things to all people that he might win some to Christ. In order to do that, Paul had to learn to see the world through the eyes of people who were different than him – for him that meant the Gentiles.

For many of us, it might mean people of color.

We need to be willing to acknowledge and face the sin that is unique to ourselves in the modern United States – individually and collectively – and we need to respect the image of God in each other. We need to listen and learn to understand our brothers and sisters of color.

A large segment of white evangelicalism has failed in the area of race relations. A great deal of pain and confusion has been caused by the consequence of that failure.

This is not political correctness or critical theory. This is the Gospel. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. People of color in the United States have collectively experienced poverty and oppression in ways that “my people” haven’t.

As I listen to them, I realize it still hurts.

I submit that respecting the image of God in people of color means listening to their stories, understanding their pain, seeking forgiveness for any part we/I have played in that pain and seeking to do what we/I can do in our/my spheres of influence to bring unity where there has been division.

In keeping with the title and theme of this article, I invite my white brothers and sisters to listen to the candid discussion of McCaulley and Holmes (linked in the previous paragraph). They are both conservative and orthodox in their Christian faith, but their experiences and views on the world are colored by their experience, just as mine are by my experience.

The experience of a black man or woman in the United States is different than the experience of a white man or woman. It just is. Men and women of color share collectively in experiences that I will never know or appreciate in the same way they do. I have not lived what they have lived.

In these times of obvious racial tension, I need to hear what they have to say, and I need to listen. I need to recognize the image of God in them – something that was not well-recognized in our recent past as a country.

The weight of the history of slavery and racism in this country continues to burden people of color in many psychological, social, physical, cultural, emotional and spiritual ways. Paul urges us to “bear one another’s burdens”. (Gal. 6:2) We can’t bear the burdens of our black brothers and sisters if we don’t listen.

I remind myself as I write this of the importance of listening, and I put it out into the world as encouragement for others to do the same.

Jesus has paved the way by giving his very life to break down the walls that divide us – that we might be one with him as he is one with the Father; that we might be one with each other as we are one with him.

Just as Peter saw the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his household, we need to get close enough to our black brothers and sisters to see the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. We need to recognize and respect the image of God in them.

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